The Amber Arrow – Snippet 10

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 10 He plopped another amber bead into his mouth, took a sip of wine, and gulped it down. The flush of power was immediate, intense, and incredibly pleasurable. A man might become a slave to … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 10

He plopped another amber bead into his mouth, took a sip of wine, and gulped it down. The flush of power was immediate, intense, and incredibly pleasurable.

A man might become a slave to sensations like this, Rossofore reflected. Might want more and more until the desire drove him crazy.

But not me.

I’m a master inquisitor, with training in self-abnegation to fall back on. With knowledge of what it takes to sacrifice for the greater good.

And besides, I do have more beads before I need to feast on the crown.

Which reminded him . . .

As soon as he had the crown in hand, Marchioness Valentine Archambeault, the so-called Queen of Vall l’Obac, must burn.

***

The fulgin didn’t know why it travelled north, only that it must. This drive wasn’t a compulsion exactly. More like a purpose. In the same way that water wasn’t compelled to be wet, it just existed to be wet.

So the fulgin existed to go north.

Seeking a girl.

A young woman.

It has taken an image from the Dark Angel Queen’s mind. In fact, it had been molded around that image, so that its every thought involved her. The girl.

The Dark Angel Princess.

She was darker of skin than the pale people of the north. Her hair was raven black. Her locks twisted into cascading curls. Her lips were full. Her features were fine boned.

The Queen Mother remembered.

Loved.

Longed to shelter and get to know the daughter better.

The fulgin felt this. It had been formed in the queen’s mind, after all. But it couldn’t understand any of it.

The fulgin couldn’t love.

But it did know that the girl’s skin was as smooth and soft as a toadstool cap. That would help in identifying her.

The creature was naked except for a bag strung around its back. In the bag was the crown. The creature did not know beauty except for the crown. The beautiful crown. The amber crown. The Crown of the Eight Towers. Eight amber towers carved in one strong amber band. The Couronne de Huit Tours.

The crown was beauty.

It was every purpose the fulgin had.

The creature must protect it. Deliver it to the princess. For the most beautiful thing in the world would be the crown in the girl’s hands.

The crown on the girl’s head.

Then the creature could cease. Dissolve. It couldn’t die because it wasn’t really alive. But it would have finished its task. In complete happiness. Its purpose fulfilled.

There was a long way to go still.

The fulgin could feel the princess to the north, but she was not near. It must struggle on.

Travel by night.

Hide in shadows during the day.

No matter what, avoid pursuers.

For there were pursuers. Many of them.

Romans. The red-collared priest who burned people for fun. The priest that wanted to eat the crown.

Wanted to eat it almost as badly as the fulgin want to take the crown to the girl.

The fulgin could sense the priest’s greedy desire for the crown.

To be captured would be agony. All would be lost. And it could never die, but would live forever in the shadows, seeking a crown and a girl that were dead and gone.

It must not be captured. It must cross fields, forests, slink through villages. It must find the girl.

It must give her the crown.

Her mother, the Dark Angel Queen, had made the fulgin . . . made it not wise, but clever.

Good at hiding.

And very good at sneaking.

Chapter Nine: The Inn

Wulf’s company had spent a morning burying the Romans and their horses in the gully as best they could. It was enough to keep the ravens away for a day or so, which was the real purpose. Romans did not like pyres. And Wulf didn’t want to attract the attention a giant fire for bodies might draw, anyway.

Captain Max Jager had overseen the grisly task until midmorning. Then he’d called it done. They’d moved out.

Wulf would never forget the tangle of dead Roman cavalry and their horses. It wasn’t that he felt guilty. The Romans had invaded. They were spies. They had tried to kill him.

But he was beginning to realize that the more he fought, the bigger the toll it took on his memories. Those dead Romans were something you couldn’t forget

He was afraid that images like that might one day push a lot of the good memories that were more fragile from his mind.

By the late afternoon, Wulf’s band arrived in the village of Tjark. It was the southernmost outpost of the Mark of Shenandoah. Tjark was a crossroads for travelers, but Wulf wondered if the town were prepared for his company of one hundred soldiers to march in and want food and lodging.

And not just any one hundred, but one hundred soldiers wearing the insignia of the Mark of Shenandoah.

This badge was a red buffalo passant on a green field with a silver moon behind it.

The men-at-arms carried small shields–bucklers–that marked them as sworn to Wulf’s family. They were painted with a black-and-gold hammer on a red field. The hammer was the Dragon Hammer of Tjark, the symbol of the von Dunstigs, the rulers of the Mark of Shenandoah.

The soldiers rode the intelligent valley horse breed called kalters. There was also a small herd of cattle along with them. These were handled by buffalo people as cattle drovers, both male and female. Behind that was a train of mules carrying tents, food, and supplies. Of course, this was the mark, so many of the “men-at-arms” of the company weren’t humans, but a wide range of Tier. There were buffalo men, bear men, raccoon men, and centaurs. The mule drivers were mostly goat men, the fauns.

Near the middle of this band was Saeunn Amberstone. She rode bareback on a graceful white kalter mare named Kreide. Much of the time Saeunn was slumped over the neck of the horse, clinging to her mane. Even half-unconscious, Saeunn could stay on a horse. She had grown up riding on a huge ranch in the Amberstone Valley out in the Great West. Ravenelle kept a watch, but nobody was worried Saeunn would fall off.

Wulf knew this didn’t mean Saeunn was well. She wasn’t.

That was one reason he’d diverted southeast to the inn at Tjark, instead of crossing into the Wild Kingdoms many leagues to the west as he’d planned.

For the past week of traveling, Saeunn had been getting weaker each day. She was fading. Sleeping in tents and riding a horse were wearing her down even faster. She had to rest for a little while. In a real bed.

Wulf rode beside her. On his other side was Captain Jager. Jager was the leader of the armed company. Jager was a bobcat man. At first glance, he looked like a child on the horse he rode. Wulf knew from firsthand experience Jager’s courage, his grittiness, and his intelligence.

If an enemy underestimated Jager, they would wind up dead fast.

Wulf had seen it happen.

Ravenelle Archambeault rode on the other side of Saeunn. They were off the woodland path they’d been following for days and were on a wagon road called the Duke’s Highway.

Rainer rode to the side and a little behind Ravenelle. To the rear of this lead group were Ravenelle’s three servants. Then, on one of the massive draft horses the buffalo people rode–horses that dwarfed the kalters–rode the wise woman, Puidenlehdet.

Several other buffalo women were with her. Buffalo women traveled with their men on long journeys–and to war. There were experts at pitching tents and setting up camp quickly in any kind of weather. And, like Puidenlehdet, at treating wounds.

We won’t need tents tonight, Wulf thought, breathing a sigh of relief. We’re staying at the best inn in the land. Or so they say.

It was called the Apfelwein auf der Therme in Kaltish.

The Applewine at the Hot Spring.

They’d been on the trail for three and a half weeks. They’d made their way west from Raukenrose, the capital of the mark. The seat of Wulf’s family was at Raukenrose Castle. Then they’d turned south and wound through the ridges and valleys of the Greensmoke Mountains. Tjark was the largest settlement they’d seen in many days.

 


Chain of Command – Snippet 10

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Chain of Command – Snippet 10 Sam’s mind wandered as it always did during ceremonies. He tried to look serious and attentive, mindful of how important ceremonies were to other people and unwilling to hurt or offend them. The truth … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 10

Sam’s mind wandered as it always did during ceremonies. He tried to look serious and attentive, mindful of how important ceremonies were to other people and unwilling to hurt or offend them. The truth was he never really understood–whether it was a birthday, wedding, graduation, or funeral–why people believed those particular five or ten or thirty minutes were more meaningful than the five or ten or thirty minutes which came before or after. They always felt the same to him and that made him feel slightly awkward, as if he were missing something important.

Not that all moments in his life were the same. Some took his breath away, some would stay with him forever. His first sight of the seven gray body bags was one of those moments. But the important moments almost always came upon him by surprise, and never as the result of planning, never because time had been set aside for them in his schedule.

As for this ceremony, he felt as if everything important which could happen to Jules and the others already had.

“Honor guard, hand salute,” Captain Huhn ordered.

“Mariner Striker Louise DeMarco, Chief Petty Officer George Nguyen, Machinist Mate Second Class Vincent Pulaski, Quartermaster Second Class Ernest Schwartz, Sensor Technician Third Class DeRon Velazquez, Ensign Robert Waring, Lieutenant Junior Grade Julia Washington.

“We therefore commit their remains to space, to rejoin the universe from which we all came, and to which we all surely will return.”

There was a pause of several seconds, presumably as the outer door of the airlock was opened and the bodies released, and then Captain Huhn spoke again.

“All hands, resume duty.”

“Okay,” Sam quietly told his work party, and they all returned to the job of repairing their boat, but without the banter which had filled the transit tube before.

*****

Vice-Captain Takaar Nuvaash, Speaker for the Enemy, sat in the fleet tactical center of KBk Five One Seven and studied the sensor readings from the thirteen Human ships. All communications between them were by tight beam and so interception of actual messages was out of the question, but he could at least see evidence of the volume of signal traffic by their changing emission states. What they said was unknowable, but it was clear they were all saying something, which meant none of the vessels had been disabled. He was not sure how he felt about that.

Why were they at war? What was the point? What was its strategic purpose? What did his government hope to gain by it? Admiral e-Lapeela clearly supported the attack. He must know the objective, the stakes, the plan for prosecuting the war after the opening salvos were fired. What else did he know?

Nuvaash glanced at the admiral who sat in the console to his right. Three months earlier, when the admiral had assumed command of the First Striking Fleet, Nuvaash had made several unobtrusive attempts to draw a response from him which would indicate membership in one of the shadow brotherhoods, the secret societies which cut across boundaries of class and nationality and which riddled Varoki society. Nuvaash knew the secret challenges of nearly a dozen such organizations, and he knew how to insert them casually into conversation, in ways that might provoke a reaction. He always arranged it so he could ignore a positive response and carry on as if the challenge was a coincidence, the significance of its answering countersign unrecognized. In e-Lapeela’s case, however, that was an unnecessary precaution. The admiral had responded to none of the challenges, and so Nuvaash had no more understanding of his commander’s true loyalties now than he had before he had heard his name.

“Admiral, it will be easier for me to assess whether the attack has produced the desired effect if I knew what effect was desired.”

The admiral chuckled and tilted his head to the side, the Varoki equivalent of a shrug.

“Nominally, we aim to end the criminal colonization of K’tok by Humans. Since the re-integration referendum, all of K’tok is legally uBakai soil.”

Nominally, e-Lapeela had said, so there was a larger objective in sight than simply the planet K’tok.

“The bio-compatibility issue complicates–” Nuvaash began but e-Lapeela cut him off with a gesture.

“It does not complicate the legality of the situation, Speaker. That much is simple. K’tok was discovered by Varoki survey vessels one hundred thirty-four years ago, colonized by Varoki settlers sent by the uZmataanki and our own uBakai governments a decade later, became a sovereign and independent member state of the Cottohazz two years ago, and voluntarily became a confederated territory of the Commonwealth of Bakaa eleven months past. Legally, Humans have no claim on any part of the world.”

“Legally,” Nuvaash said, and e-Lapeela nodded.

“You are right. Legality matters little to Humans. Every world in the Cottohazz where there are Humans, they are involved in crime. Some places they have even taken over the other criminals and organized them. Can you imagine? But you have experience with them, so you do not need to imagine. That is why I retained you in your post as Speaker when I took command here. I could have brought my own specialist, but you know Humans. You understand them.

“So speak for the enemy. How will they respond to our First Action initiative?”

“Rage,” Nuvaash answered immediately. “Like us, Humans have a cultural aversion to wars begun by treachery, particularly the main Human nations involved in the colonization effort of K’tok. An unprovoked surprise attack such as this will produce righteous rage in these governments and their people. This will complicate our task.”

“How? Humans are savages and they will fight savagely. Will they be docile if we begin the war politely?”

“Of course not, Admiral. But if they feel wronged, they will fight longer. Their governments will be less likely to come to terms. We will pay a higher price in warriors and ships. In both categories these four Human nations combined outnumber the uBakai Star Navy. But most importantly, in their rage they will strive to find a way to revisit on us not merely the physical damage of the attack, but also its psychological toll. They will attempt to strike back harder than they were struck.”

Admiral e-Lapeela nodded and smiled.

“They will not simply react to our attack,” he said softly. “They will over-react. I believe you are correct, Nuvaash. I certainly hope so. All of our plans rest on that.

“Humans have been a problem since they were admitted to the Cottohazz seventy years ago. At long last, we are going to solve that problem.”

Nuvaash shuddered, and he could not tell if fear or excitement made up the greater part of the feeling.

 


The Amber Arrow – Snippet 09

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 09 Chapter Eight: The Couronne de Huit Tours Magister Rossofore managed to suppress a wild laugh, but he couldn’t help chuckling in delight. “Who . . . what have you turned into?” Valentine whispered. “Something … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 09

Chapter Eight: The Couronne de Huit Tours

Magister Rossofore managed to suppress a wild laugh, but he couldn’t help chuckling in delight.

“Who . . . what have you turned into?” Valentine whispered.

“Something more than human, Marchioness. A man-drake,” Rossofore said. “I am destruction personified. Let me show you.”

Then he picked out a rooftop toward the city’s great wall. He’d been bothered by that rooftop since he’d taken up these chambers in the Pierre du Corbeau Castle.

Green tiles.

All the other roofs were red.

The green offended him.

It was wrong.

The houses and shops of Montserrat should be the same.

Who did they think they were, these people under the green roof? Special?

Probably blasphemers. Most colonials were.

He concentrated on the house, then slowly reached toward it with an open palm.

He clenched the palm into a fist.

The roof, and the house under it, imploded in a puff of dust. The green tiles collapsed–then shattered in a thousand pieces. Along with the house and everything in it, they disintegrated when they hit the ground. A large cloud of dust rose from the spot, roiling outward into the streets and alleyways.

Rossofore heard distant shouts of alarm and horror.

Beside him the marchioness cried out again. Bloody tears rolled down her face. “What have you done? You’ve killed my people. Innocent people.”

Rossofore felt a twinge of regret.

“The faith doesn’t kill for killing’s sake,” he said. “But this was sadly necessary.”

Necessary? Why, in the name of the Bishops and all that’s holy?”

“Can’t you see?” Rossofore said. “Now the roofs are the same.”

Valentine was trembling. Her voice shook as she spoke. “You’re a monster.”

“Yes,” Rossofore replied. He smiled. “A man-drake.”

There was so much more to do. He needed more amber, lots of it, if he were to accomplish the great things he was meant to do. Most of the Roman Empire had been picked over for every scrap of dragon amber. Aegypt and the Afrique had no more to give. The mines of Roman territories on the continents of Meridianus and Austrinalis were worked out. The Freiland Roman colonies had some, but it was not near the surface. So far very little had been produced, almost none of it for export. Beyond Rome, Sarmatia and the Eastern empires of the great continent had been mined bare.

Rome’s control was based on the Talaia faith, and the faith’s power came from celestis, the holy herb of Talaia. Celestis was grown on dragon amber, consuming it in the process.

“Rome needs–”

He turned to the marchioness, but she had stepped back from the window. She was sitting in a chair on the other side of room. She dabbed her tears with a handkerchief already stained blood red.

He walked over, looked down upon her.

“Marchioness Valentine, you see the power of amber now. It is not meant to be worn as pretty baubles. Dragon amber is pure power. It must be used.”

Valentine didn’t answer or look up at him. He could only see her coiled black hair held in place by pure silver clips. Her black and red dress left her tawny shoulders exposed. They quivered in her distress.

“Where is amber to be found? In the colonies, yes. But the Kaltelands and Wild Kingdoms of Freiland–they have amber, and lots of it.”

The heathens didn’t even mine it. They left it be while they worshipped their false gods and cringed in awe of the dragon parasites feeding beneath the land.

“They leave their amber in the ground!” Rossofore found himself shouting. He tried to control his voice, but his agitation was too strong. “Rome needs that amber. I need it! Don’t you understand, Marchioness? I could be the conquistador Rome needs. We could finally take the north lands. Avenge your humiliating defeat. Make the heathen suffer for what they’ve done.”

Rossofore opened the hand with which he’d crushed the house with the green roof. Five more beads of the Golden Rose of Lerocher still lay within it. Their tawny glow was spellbinding.

“You saw what a few beads can do in the hands of a true priest of the faith,” he said. “I need more. If I’m going to conquer the north for Rome, I have to have more, much more. And at the moment, there is only one place I can get that much.”

Rossofore could see that Valentine understood immediately what he was saying. She looked up at him. Red streaks ran down her face, but her gaze was fierce, defiant.

“You cannot have the Couronne de Huit Tours to aid you in this craziness!” she said. “The royal crown is the symbol of my kingdom.”

“It is made of pure dragon amber.”

“I know that. It’s the crown because it’s made of amber.”

Rossofore nodded. “You believe you cannot give it to me. But I have to tell you, the deficiencies I noticed in Count Lerocher, I have perhaps seen in your home. Could it be that heathen ways have infected your household, as well? After all, your daughter, the heir to your crown, has been given to the barbarians to raise.”

“For peace. The Little War ravaged both our lands. We were . . . defeated. Shenandoah was exhausted, nearly ruined.”

“There are no excuses before the Emptiness. What is true is true. What is right is right. So say the bishops.”

“You wouldn’t dare accuse me of heresy.”

“No one is above the Inquisition, Marchioness,” Rossofore said darkly. “Not even you.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t have the crown.”

“But I will have it. And you will hand it over to me. For the glory of Rome.”

A sly smile began to spread over the marchioness’s face. Rossofore did not like this one bit.

“You cannot have it,” Valentine said, “because it isn’t here anymore.”

It was Rossofore’s turn to feel shock and dismay. “What have you done with the crown, woman?”

“Do you think I didn’t notice what you did to Lerocher? I even knew why you did it. Do you think I’m ignorant and powerless in my own castle? In my own kingdom? I am the queen of this land, and my people have not forgotten this.”

Rossofore gripped both arms of the chair Valentine was sitting in. He leaned close and loomed over her. She turned her face up and met his gaze with a defiant stare.

“Where is the crown?”

“Far away.”

“If you do not tell me, I promise you that I will wring the truth from you in the most brutal way imaginable. Then I will burn your bones until they crumble to dust.”

Valentine laughed.

She laughs at me!

Rossofore backhanded her across the face. Her head twisted. He hit her again. Blood flowed from her nose and lips.

“Drag her back to her chambers!” he bellowed at the guards. “Lock her in. I’ll decide what to do with her later.”

His men obeyed instantly.

Rossofore stood for a long time, shaking with rage.

Dragon-rage, he thought. Righteous fire within. Dasein flowing through him. Pure power.

Something in his palm?

Ah yes. The remaining beads from the Golden Rose of Lerocher.

I could save them for later, Rossofore thought. But why?

I need one now.

I will use it to look far and wide. I will use it to locate the thief in the night who has stolen the Couronne de Huit Tours.

The crown was pure dragon amber. It contained the dasein he would need to fully transform into the dragon he knew was inside him.

It held the amber he would need to consume for the triumph of the faith in the north.

My crown.

In Rossofore’s wildest dreams he dared to hope he might become one of those heads of the faith, those bishops sitting so serenely in the Basilica of St. Judas on their huge block of amber, pronouncing the fate of Rome. They were the rulers of the world.

He was young yet. That would be later. For now, his task was to bring Shenandoah under Roman control.

And once I devour the crown . . .

Rossofore imagined all the dragon amber that was waiting in the Kaltelands.

A feast.

But I need power to get at it. More dasein.

 


Chain of Command – Snippet 09

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Chain of Command – Snippet 09 Chapter Four 2 December 2133 (ten minutes later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit) “Thanks for staying after,” Huhn said, pulling his blanket more tightly around his shoulders and avoiding eye contact with Sam. “I … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 09

Chapter Four

2 December 2133 (ten minutes later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit)

“Thanks for staying after,” Huhn said, pulling his blanket more tightly around his shoulders and avoiding eye contact with Sam. “I know we haven’t exactly been on the same page a whole lot, but we’re deep in the shit now, and we need to work together. You know what I mean?”

“Work together. Yes, sir,” Sam said, trying to concentrate on Huhn’s words instead of the image of gray body bags.

Huhn frowned at him and then looked away.

With the others gone, Sam now saw a part of the smart wall near Huhn’s cabin workstation which was live, showing a rotation of family pictures. Most of them looked posed. They featured three people: Huhn, usually in uniform and with a variety of different hair lengths and colors; a woman ranging from her mid-twenties to late-thirties in different pictures, but always with the same tentative smile; and a boy ranging from six or seven up to late teens. The younger version of the boy looked bored, the older one defiant.

“You’ve got a good tactical head on you, Bitka,” Huhn said.  Sam looked up from the pictures with a start, but Huhn’s attention was on the blank gray expanse of the opposite wall. “You’ve shown that much. That was quick thinking during the attack, recommending we realign the boat. I had to think about it a little before agreeing, but you were right.” Huhn glanced at Sam again, perhaps gauging his reaction to this re-writing of history.

“Thank you, sir.”

Huhn fidgeted with his blanket for a moment, as if unsure how to proceed.

“Okay. Like they say, water under the bridge, right? Okay. So …XO, huh? Quite a feather in your cap. Something to brag about to the folks back home, that’s for damn sure. It’s a big job, and a thankless one–take that from me. No one appreciates the XO, but you’ll learn that as you go. You’ll have to keep the tactical department too for now. Short-handed.”

“Yes, sir. Not a problem.”

“I’ll help you out with this job, show you the ropes. But you need to help me out too. I’m new to being captain, you know.”

Something was happening here but Sam was too numb to understand quite what it was or what to do in response. His brain–the analytical part anyway–was still sharp, but the emotional part remained punch-drunk, useless. He knew he should say something.

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay. Well …we’ll take this up again later. Now you better get started on drafting the new watch list and general quarters assignments. Oh, and since you’re still Tac Boss, you’re also the boat’s intel officer. We need to let the crew know what’s going on. You know, big picture stuff, keep it simple, but put together a summary and broadcast it over the all-crew channel.  So …well, dismissed.”

Sam glided out and closed the hatch, then spent a moment holding a stanchion on the bulkhead, thinking through the conversation. Once Huhn got over his surprise having Sam as his XO he had at least been polite, had sounded as if he wanted to get along, work together. Sam wasn’t sure the two of them could manage that, but then he shrugged. What choice did they have?

First things first.

*****

“All hands, this is Lieutenant Bitka the executive officer speaking. Captain Huhn directed me to tell you about our current situation and our mission. As you all probably know, as of 0937 Zulu today, the United States of North America, along with our allies–the West European Union, the Republic of India, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria–have been at war with the Varoki Commonwealth of Bakaa. The biggest thing we know is they shot at us first.

“Something to remember is we’re not fighting every single Varoki out there. Like us, the Varoki don’t have one central government. They’ve got almost thirty sovereign nations, and we’re only at war with one of them: the Commonwealth of Bakaa. They’re called the uBakai in their language.

“You’ve probably heard USS Hornet was badly damaged by the sneak attack. The other destroyers of the squadron took damage and suffered casualties too. We don’t know the extent yet, but for the moment it appears that all twelve destroyers are operational. Our own damage is repairable and does not threaten our survival or that of the boat. Our losses were heavy, though–seven dead and seventeen injured. The good news is, all but four of our injured have already returned to duty or will shortly.

“We’re here in this system for one reason only–to protect Human colonists on the planet K’tok. Why is K’tok such a big deal? Because of all the ecosystems any of the Six Races have discovered in the last couple hundred years, K’tok’s is the only one that has proteins compatible with Humans. That means it’s the only place other than Earth where we can eat the fruit and vegetables and meat without it killing us. People can grow food in the ground, not just in hydroponic tanks.

“The Varoki settled a corner of the world before anyone knew it was compatible with us, but when they found out, they tried to cover it up. That all came out a couple years ago and there’s been a flow of Human settlers there ever since. The local Varoki–the uBakai–started getting rough and so our government sent us to keep everyone honest. Instead they pulled a sneak attack on us.

“There’s a big combined task force following us, ships from all four Human allied navies. They’re headed for K’tok, and so for now our mission is to provide the forward screen for that task force. That’s exactly what they built our destroyers for, and what we’ve trained for.

“In twenty minutes we’ll secure from general quarters and go to Readiness Condition Two. That will give half of you a chance to grab some chow and rest. They you’ll spell your shipmates.

“We’re in a shooting war. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it, and there’s a lot of combat power backing us up. I was proud of the way everyone I saw performed during the attack, and I’m sure the captain feels the same way. Carry on.”

*****

Two hours later Sam was supervising a repair party, welding permanent patches over the holes in the interior of the central transit tube where uBakai “buckshot” had punched through. The all-boat commlink alert sounded.

“All hands, bury the dead,” he heard Lieutenant Marina Filipenko, the officer of the deck, announce.

He waved his work party to a halt and they all anchored their feet to stanchions and came to attention. Captain Huhn’s voice came on next. He must have been aft in Engineering, where the large maintenance airlock would allow all seven of their dead to be buried together, as was customary. The captain read off their names and said something about each of them, although he sounded as if he read summaries from the service folders.

 


The Amber Arrow – Snippet 08

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 08 “As Rome’s highest representative in the kingdom at present, I am the Hand of the Bishops, so yes, I am in charge of its fate.” “Poor Count Lerocher,” the queen murmured. “Your sympathy is … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 08

“As Rome’s highest representative in the kingdom at present, I am the Hand of the Bishops, so yes, I am in charge of its fate.”

“Poor Count Lerocher,” the queen murmured.

“Your sympathy is misguided. He was a heretic.”

“You would know, Magister.”

“Marchioness, the man confessed to sacrilege and crimes against the Colonial Dispensation. He allowed his bloodservants Roman surnames. He made midnight sacrifices to the Kalte gods to beg for good tobacco crops.”

“And you got him to confess this after only a little prodding with red-hot pokers?” the marchioness said. “Amazing.”

“The Resonance of the Faith demanded his confession, not me. But it is my task as a master inquisitor to bring the heretic into harmony.”

“With the use of the whip and rack, I’m sure,” Valentine said. Rossofore detected the marchioness’s obvious sarcasm, but decided to ignore it. He had more important matters to attend to.

“Sometimes the body must suffer so that the soul can be saved.”

He’d thought the young Countess Lerocher a self-serving coquette. It had turned out that the young girl loved the old man after all. How disgusting and unnatural!

She came to Rossofore and pled with him to keep her husband from burning at the stake. She offered him nearly everything, even–he thought with disgust–herself as a mistress.

Then Rossofore had named the price he’d intended to demand all along.

“The Golden Rose of Lerocher would be suitable atonement for what Count Lerocher has done,” Rossofore had said.

The little countess’s hand had gone to her mouth in shock.

“Please don’t ask that of us,” she pleaded. “It’s the foundation of the family fortune. If you take it, we’ll be ruined. My husband would rather burn than give it up.”

“Do you care nothing for your husband’s soul, Countess? Would you rather he never resonated with the Emptiness?” Rossofore asked. “I remind you that the souls of the excommunicated are doomed to walk in the underworld forever.”

“Yes, I know it.”

“The Golden Rose stands between your husband and the Blessed Void. With its weight upon his conscience, he will never ascend from this world of suffering.”

Even then, she had wavered. So he’d ordered the stakes erected and the wood piled high for burning. There were ten heretics currently held in the Montserrat dungeon.

He sent a messenger to the countess saying that one of those stakes was for Lerocher.

The messenger came back bearing the Golden Rose in a strongbox.

“The count confessed,” Rossofore told Valentine. “And the faith was merciful. He did not burn.”

“You had the old man hanged in his cell,” the marchioness replied dryly.

“Yes, but we released the body to the widow to be buried in consecrated ground with a wafer of blessed celestis on his tongue. This is the foundation for passage to eternity, as you know, Marchioness.”

Rossofore looked from Valentine down to the necklace again and smiled.

Mine.

There is nothing that this old woman can do about it, either.

He took one of the amber beads in his hands and gave the metal that enclosed it a powerful twist.

“No!” Valentine gasped.

He gave it another twist. The bead popped from its casing and into Rossofore’s hand.

“That is a priceless relic from the first days of the colony,” Valentine said, her voice trembling with dismay.

Well I certainly wiped that arrogant smile from her face, Rossofore thought. Good.

One by one, as the queen watched, horrified, he twisted the other amber stones out in the same way. He threw aside the rest of the necklace. It was gold, and worth a small fortune, but was useless to him. He held the amber beads before his eyes.

Lovely. Perfect. Concentrated dasein. The power that had made the world, and that could unmake it.

He stepped over to his writing desk near to the window where a wine pitcher and glasses sat.

He smiled at Valentine. “Join me in glass of wine, Marchioness?”

Rossofore poured himself a glass. He began to pour one for Valentine, but she shook her head and put a hand over the top of the glass.

The obsidian Raven Ring of l’Ange Noir glinted on her right hand. The Montserrat rivulet topaz sparkled in a bracelet on her wrist. She wore a subtle and no doubt expensive perfume, a mixture of jasmine, vanilla, and musk. Rossofore felt for a moment that he was in the presence of a creature who maybe was a little more than merely human.

A true queen.

Mother of a kingdom.

He quickly shook the feeling off, however. No time to be foolish.

Rossofore raised the wine glass, then put one of the amber beads into his mouth. He rolled it around on his tongue.

Valentine whimpered at the sight.

“Don’t!” she gasped.

The bead was warm. There was no taste to it. This always disappointed him. Pure power ought to have a taste.

“Blood and marrow!” the marchioness exclaimed. “Are you crazy?”

Rossofore smiled. He took a sip of wine.

He swallowed.

“No!” Valentine cried.

She lunged at him, but the guards were nearby to hold her back. There was no need. She controlled herself at the last moment.

At least she has some self-dignity and good breeding, Rossofore thought. For a colonial.

One after another, he swallowed five more of the dragon amber beads. He washed each down with another sip of wine.

Each swallow drew another whine of agony from the marchioness.

It took only a moment for the power to blossom. He felt the warmth flow through his body. His skin began to shine, the dasein inside him producing its own light. His mind raced with a thousand thoughts and plans. If he gazed into a looking glass, which he’d done before when the amber flush was upon him, he knew he would see his eyes glowing like reddish-yellow orbs of fire.

He stretched out his hands. They were crinkling. No, they were scaling, like a fish. A reptile.

He was becoming a dragon.

A man-dragon. A mandrake. A creature of pure dasein.

“Dark Angel protect us!” the marchioness shouted. She backed across the room at the sight of Rossofore. She would have fled entirely, but the guards would not let her pass.

He walked to the citadel window and looked out over the stronghold of Montserrat, his base in this cursed colonial land.

“Come here!” he commanded Valentine. He saw her try to resist, but with the amber power behind it, his voice was compelling. It’s dasein was irresistible. She turned and stumbled toward him.

“Stand beside me at the window,” he continued. Valentine did as he said. He smiled. “Watch this, Marchioness.”

Rossofore raised his now-scaly hands and stuck them out the open window. He clapped them.

A great peal of thunder boomed through the city.

Lightning forked across the sky, then crashed somewhere near the horizon.

The people looked like bugs from here in the tower.

Roaches, Rossofore thought. Like those cursed colonial Palmetto bugs. Ugh.

And like roaches, they scurried in all directions, startled and frightened, but not knowing which way to go.

He clapped his hands again. This time the thunder was louder. It shook the ground. A blast of wind flowed through the town and the people below were blown from their feet.

Then the wind stopped. The people slowly picked themselves back up. After a moment, they went back on their ways.

I did that,” Rossofore said. “Me!”

“This is sacrilege,” Valentine whispered.

Rossofore chuckled. “How can it be, Marchioness? I’m the one who decides what sacrilege is in these cursed colonies. That is my appointed task.”

He reached over and pulled Valentine closer to himself.

The old daydream returned.

She did smell so good. Rich. From some other world.

A beautiful world beyond the filthy orphanage and Brother Luigi’s leather straps and knotted rope whips.

Rossofore shook his head to clear it.

No, no, no. She isn’t my mother. She may not be anyone’s mother soon.

But he would have to find out the name of whatever perfume she was using. He might recommend it to the true ladies of Rome.

Later. There would be plenty of time.

“What you are seeing is dasein,” he said. “Pure power. You colonials have had it for generations. But you’re ignorant. You didn’t know how to unlock it.”

Rossofore took another bead, put it in his mouth. Swallowed.

“But I do.”

 


Chain of Command – Snippet 08

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Chain of Command – Snippet 08 Moe listed the holes the uBakai buckshot had torn in their boat’s roster: two officers and five others dead; one officer–the captain–and three others critically injured and in cold sleep; one officer and twelve … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 08

Moe listed the holes the uBakai buckshot had torn in their boat’s roster: two officers and five others dead; one officer–the captain–and three others critically injured and in cold sleep; one officer and twelve others injured but expected to return to duty soon. It was a big bite out of a total crew of ninety-five, but the biggest bite had been out of Sam’s tactical department.

As if thinking the same thing, Huhn’s gaze settled on Sam

“Bitka, I don’t know how you’re going to manage the tactical department without Lieutenant Washington. She was a hell of an officer. You lost your senior chief, too, didn’t you? And Waring?”

Sam looked away and swallowed before answering.

“Yes, sir. Chief Nguyen was killed on the bridge along with Lieutenant Washington, Ensign Waring, and one of my sensor techs. But our weaponry is up, except for one point defense laser mount. I’d like to get the power ring recharged as soon as possible so we’ve got plenty of juice for the spinal coil gun and lasers, but TAC’s up and running otherwise.”

The power ring was the boat’s superconducting magnetic energy storage system, or SMESS, wrapped around the boat’s waist like a corset, buried under armor and coolant lines.

Huhn stared at him for a few seconds. “Well, can you handle the department without your best people? No officers, no senior chief–do you know what you’re doing?”

Once Sam might have felt a surge of anger or resentment at that, but he looked at Huhn’s scowling face, wrapped in his ridiculous blanket, and he felt nothing: no anger, no resentment, no contempt–nothing. He tried to remember what it had felt like to be intimidated by Huhn, but he could not. He felt detached, withdrawn from everything going on in the room, as if it was happening to someone else. His body was here but his mind–part of it, at any rate–was in the wardroom staring at a floating gray body bag.

“My two division chiefs are rock-solid sir. Chief Burns is ready to move up to Bull Tac, and he’s got a good machinist first behind him in weapons division to move up to chief.” Sam decided not to mention his candidate for promotion to chief was Joyce Menzies, one of the two petty officers Huhn had argued with him over earlier. “I’ve got a good set of acey-deucies to fill in behind them. We’ll manage, sir.”

Bull Tac was the unofficial title of the senior chief petty officer in the tactical department, the position Chief Nguyen had held. Acey-deucies were the petty officers first and second class, the men and women who did most of the real work in the boat.

“I hope to God you’re right,” Huhn said. “We’re going to need your department up to speed where they’re sending us, which is right straight into hell. There’s a combined task force following us in, about six days behind us. It was meant as a show of force, to keep the Varoki from pulling something like this, but it’s too late for that. Now they’re the counterattack force, and we’re riding point for them, all the way down to low orbit around K’Tok. When I said we were in the shit, I meant it. This is definitely Charge of the Light Brigade stuff.”

Hennessey and Filipenko exchanged a worried look, but again Sam wasn’t sure if they were more worried about the new mission or Huhn.

“I think somebody better warn the follow-on force to expect the same attack we got hit with,” Sam said.

“Noted,” Huhn answered and looked away–which was Navy-speak for Who cares what you think?

“I’m serious,” Sam said. “We need to get a tight beam message to the main task force right away or they’re going to get whacked.”

“They came in later than we did so they’re in a different intercept corridor,” Huhn said.

“Doesn’t matter.”

They all looked at him and Huhn opened his mouth to cut him off but Sam pushed on. “This attack was launched along an exactly reciprocating course track. That’s nearly impossible. There is only one way this attack could be executed.”

“Oh? So please educate us all, Mister Bitka,” Huhn said.

“Yes, sir. Buckshot is just inert pellets, so once it’s launched there’s no way to alter its vector. That means the launch vessel has to already be on the correct course. The only practical way to do that would be to leave orbit around K’tok and accelerate into the reciprocal course, but to do that they would have to already know our position and in-coming course. That means the vessel had to leave K’tok orbit after we came out of J-space and began our glide. I bet there’s a departure report somewhere in the intel feeds for the last two weeks.”

“You mean they had us detected all along?” Filipenko said.

“Impossible!” Huhn spat.

“Not if they knew where to point their hi-res optics,” Sam said. “If they have a couple optics platforms out in the asteroid belt we don’t know about, all they have to do is point them at the right spot, look from a couple different angles, and wait for us to occlude a star.”

“But how would they know where and when to look?” Huhn demanded. “Do you have any idea how enormous the volume of space above and below the plane of the ecliptic is?”

“Yes, sir, I do. But according to our standard operating procedure, we always enter this star system from above the plane–galactic north–always at the same distance from the orbital plane, and we always do it so that our residual momentum from the final sprint at Bronstein’s World carries us on a zero-burn intercept with K’tok. And we always do it with the same residual momentum so we don’t have to recalculate the intercept problem.”

“Wait one,” Rose Hennessey said. “You want to unwrap that a little for the benefit of a poor engineer who doesn’t know beans about astrogation?”

“Boy, howdy,” Moe agreed.

Sam looked at their blank faces. Even Filipenko, who was supposed to have some background in astrogation, frowned in thought.

“Sure. The galaxy is a flat spinning disc of stars. There’s no real north or south, up or down, but for purposes of reference, if you’re looking at it from a distance and it looks as if its spinning counter-clockwise, you’re ‘up’, or galactic north of it. If it’s spinning clockwise, you’re galactic south. Got it? Okay.

“Same with a star system. Over 99% of the matter that makes up a star and its planets, asteroids, all that stuff is concentrated in a very flat disc. The planet orbits, the asteroids, all of them are in that disc, called the plain of the ecliptic. Only stuff that wandered in and got captured later, like some comets, move outside of it.

“When we jump from star to star, we pop out of J-space into real space. If we come out and some part of the ship is in the same space occupied by, say, a rock the size of a baseball, you get what’s called an ‘annihilation event’.”

“That sounds bad,” Moe said.

“Sounds bad, is bad. So we like to do it above or below the star’s plane of the ecliptic, because there’s hardly anything floating around there.

“When you make a jump you retain whatever momentum you had from before. So we jump here from Bronstein’s World, which has a plane of the ecliptic aligned almost the same as K’Tok’s: both of them angled between thirty and forty degrees off the galactic disc. Before we jump, we accelerate down, stellar south, away from the Bronstein’s World plain of the ecliptic, but we calculate the jump to come out north of K’Tok’s plane.”

“Okay, so our momentum is carrying us down toward the plane and the planets,” Moe said.

“Right. We know where K’Tok is in its orbit at any given time so the astrogator calculates the jump to come out exactly where our residual momentum will carry us on an intercept course with K’Tok.”

“Of course,” Huhn admitted, finally speaking. “That way we don’t have to expose ourselves with a mid-course correction burn. All we do is decelerate into orbit once we get there.”

“Yes, sir. But here’s the thing: at any one time there’s only one place we can emerge from J-Space with that vector and make that intercept. It’s a moving exit point, because K’tok is moving in its orbit, but it’s pig-simple to calculate where it is. Maybe they aren’t idiots. Maybe they noticed that. And so maybe that’s where they point their optics.”

Rosie Hennessey ran her hands back through her buzz-cut hair and looked at Huhn. “Shit, sir, sounds to me like he’s on to something.”

“Okay, okay, so you’re on to something, Bitka. What does that get us?”

“If they saw us, they’ll use the same method to spot the follow-on force and may have buckshot on the way to them, so they need to be warned.

“But we also know when ChaCha’s probe went active there was no ship on that course within normal detection range of our radar. Unless they’ve got some new super-stealth ship out there–and there’s nothing in the intel briefings to suggest it–they did a low-signature course correction after they launched the ordnance, and they got way the hell away by the time we started getting hit, which means they did it a long time ago.”

“Get to the point,” Huhn snapped.

“They had to have fired that buckshot days before the incident on K’tok they say started the war. This was a carefully-planned surprise attack.”

For a moment the only sound in the compartment was the hiss of the ventilators.

Moe put his hand to his temple and squinted, a habit he had when getting an incoming message on his embedded commlink. He nodded a few times absently, then his eyes opened a bit wider.

“Roger that,” he said and turned to the others. “That was Yeoman Fischer. We sent the casualty report up to squadron and just got the modified chain of command. Commander Huhn, you’re skipper, of course.”

Moe turned to Sam. “Looks like you’re second in command, Bub.”

“What?” Huhn said. “No, that’s got to be a mistake! They must have drawn it up not knowing Larry’s returning to duty status.”

“No, sir,” Moe said. “Seems like Bitka has almost a year’s seniority in grade over Goldjune.”

“Were you on active duty when you got your promotion to full lieutenant?” Huhn demanded.

Sam shook his head.

“Don’t matter, sir,” Moe said. “Effective date is effective date.” He turned to Sam, his right hand out. “Congratulations, XO.”

 


The Amber Arrow – Snippet 07

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 07 Chapter Seven: The Necklace “Bring me Marchioness Valentine,” said a tall, somber man. He looked to be about thirty years old. He had a close-shaven face and wavy hair that fell to his shoulders. … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 07

Chapter Seven:

The Necklace

“Bring me Marchioness Valentine,” said a tall, somber man. He looked to be about thirty years old. He had a close-shaven face and wavy hair that fell to his shoulders. His hair was dark brown. So were his eyes. He had the olive skin color of a Tiberian. Here in the Roman colonies, he stood out. Most of the inhabitants of Vall l’Obac were much darker in complexion. They were of Afrique and Aegyptian ancestry.

The young man wore the jet-black tunic of a Talaia priest. His red clerical collar showed his clerical order.

The Talaia faith called this order the Fratelli di Sangue, the Brothers of the Blood.

Two guards in Roman scale armor near the door to the room left to execute the command of the man in the black tunic.

The man’s name was Quintos Rossofore. His official title was Continental Magister Praelatus of the Inquisition Suprema and Vice Abbot of the Fratelli di Sangue Order of Talaia.

Although vice abbot of an order was a higher title, Rossofore liked people to address him as “Magister.”

While he was waiting for the marchioness, Rossofore gazed down at the lovely necklace of amber beads in his hands. Yellow-golden beauty. He let it swing freely and shifted it this way and that to catch the afternoon light streaming through a citadel window.

Dragon amber.

So much concentrated dasein, he thought. Magic. That was what dragon amber was. Dasein that brought the world to life and sustained it.

And now he held that power in his hand.

Life.

Dominance.

If dasein was the essence of life, then the dragons were life’s greatest enemies. They fed on the dasein in the Earth. They took its magic for themselves, only allowing tiny amounts to escape their horrible appetites.

So said the articles of the faith of Talaia.

Rossofore knew the teachings of Talaia. Oh yes, he knew them well.

He’d spent his younger days in a special orphanage in Rome having them beaten into him.

No matter. That was years ago. Now he was a very powerful man.

Because of amber. Because of dasein.

If the free amber in the world could be collected . . . concentrated . . .

He took the beaded necklace in both of his hands. Each golden amber droplet was the size of a robin’s egg.

He was admiring it when his guards returned with Valentine Archambeault, Queen of the Colonial Kingdom of Vall l’Obac, and Marchioness of the Holy Roman Empire.

“You wish to present yourself to me?” Valentine asked. Her voice was low for woman, a rich alto. Some might call it edged with iron, but Rossofore thought it ridiculously prideful coming from a colonial.

“Yes, Marchioness,” Rossofore replied with a bow. “Thank you for coming.”

Valentine hesitated. She was obviously miffed. All in Vall l’Obac called her “Your Majesty,” Rossofore knew. Even though it was officially correct, calling her marchioness was an insult. What Valentine didn’t know, and never needed to know, was that he called her by a lesser title for his own sake as well as hers.

She reminded him of his mother.

His imaginary mother.

He had never known his true mother or his father. Instead there had only been old Brother Luigi who had drummed the books of wisdom and the Testament of the Covenant into all the children at the orphanage.

Brother Luigi and his knotted whip.

And when memorization didn’t work, the children were sold.

Sold away. Gone.

Rossofore later learned that these were sent to the mines or indentured as chimney sweeps and night-soil collectors. But when he was a small boy all he knew was that children who didn’t learn what Brother Luigi wanted . . . disappeared.

He’d been constantly worried that it might be him next. He’d had to come up with something to keep himself from digging his nails into his palms and grinding his teeth every night.

So he’d secretly imagined having parents.

He thought they might be a rich couple, possibly noble, who had to hide him from jealous relatives who wanted to kill him for his inheritance.

He was a smart boy. A boy of quality. Why shouldn’t he be of the nobility? After all, nobody knew where he’d come from. He’d just showed up in a dirty basket on Brother Luigi’s doorstep one night.

He might’ve been brought from a manor house.

Rossofore fantasized that his mother would one day show up. She would claim him from the orphanage.

She would hug him, and tell him what a good boy he was.

Then she would take him home to her big house and feed him everything he ever wanted to eat. She would have him sit next to her by the fire. She would stroke his hair.

Rossofore hadn’t been touched often in the orphanage, and when he was it was usually by the back of Brother Luigi’s hand.

His mother would never spank him. He would be a good boy. In his fantasy, he would get his own room, a really nice one. But sometimes when he had nightmares–which was all the time at the orphanage–she would let him crawl into bed between her and his father.

He would fall asleep between them, warm and safe.

He would know that nobody was going to send him to the mines.

His parents would never allow that.

Rossofore had grown older and learned that such daydreams were foolish. Idiotic, even.

Many orphans had them. They couldn’t all be the secret sons and daughters of nobility could they?

In fact, none of them were.

Such fantasy was a weakness and had to be stamped out.

Rossofore tried.

But he never could quite stamp out the memory of his imaginary mother.

Marchioness Valentine Archambeault reminded him very much of that daydream mother. She looked almost exactly as he’d pictured her. He’d been struck almost speechless when he’d first met her. Now whenever he was around her, he had to make extra sure that he didn’t give her any special privilege because of some childish delusion that he hadn’t succeeded in wiping out.

She was not his mother.

No one was his mother.

Valentine Archambeault was a heretic. She deserved punishment. He knew it. He just had to prove it.

And she never came for me! She just left me there for Brother Luigi to torment!

Stop it. That was nonsense.

The marchioness was merely of professional interest to him. After all, he was an inquisitor of the Holy Roman Empire, and she was a heretic. Most colonials were in one way or another.

After a moment off balance, Valentine regained her proud bearing and nodded to Rossofore, acknowledging that he didn’t have to address her as he would a queen.

Then she saw the necklace he was fingering, and let out an involuntary gasp.

Rossofore raised his hands and let the sunlight from the open window of the tower hit the amber beads. His office in the castle had once belonged to the marchioness’s lord high counselor.

That was before the same high counselor had been burned at the stake for heresy.

On Rossofore’s orders.

They were in a towering turret that was part of Pierre du Corbeau Castle, residence of the queen. The window looked out over the western regions of Montserrat, the capital city of Vall l’Obac.

“Do you recognize the jewelry?” Rossofore asked.

“Of course I do. It’s the Golden Rose of Lerocher. It belongs to the countess. I have no idea what you are doing with it.”

“It was owned by the Lerochers,” Rossofore replied. “By the old count and his young countess. She’s twenty years younger than the count, you know.”

Count Lerocher had disgusted Rossofore. He could still picture the wrinkled old man’s claw of a hand grasping the lovely, smooth hand of the countess.

He’d brought the man and his young wife to Montserrat. He’d told them it was for a special duty to the Brothers of the Blood. And it was, in a way. He’d immediately seen the count’s seemingly devout nature was merely a cover for deep heresy.

“In actual fact, the necklace was only in the possession of the countess. It belonged to the count. It has been in the Lerocher family for generations. When he confessed his heresy, naturally he forfeited his family’s earthly possessions. So now the Golden Rose belongs to the faith.”

“You mean, to you, Magister Rossofore.”

 


Chain of Command – Snippet 07

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Chain of Command – Snippet 07 Chapter Three 2 December 2133 (two hours later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit) “She’s over there, Mister Bitka,” the medtech told him, “with the others. Ensign Waring and Chief Nguyen, too.” Sam turned and … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 07

Chapter Three

2 December 2133 (two hours later) (nineteen days from K’tok orbit)

“She’s over there, Mister Bitka,” the medtech told him, “with the others. Ensign Waring and Chief Nguyen, too.”

Sam turned and saw the seven gray body bags floating softly in zero gee, nuzzling against each other as if for comfort. They were tethered to a fitting at the aft end of the wardroom, which had become a temporary casualty dressing station. The air had been vacuumed and filtered now, but two hours earlier it must have been like hell in here. The circular stains on the bulkheads and walls bore mute testimony to globules of blood having floated in the air like a child’s soap bubbles.

“Sir,” the medic said, “if it means anything, she never felt a thing. There was a lot of high speed fragmentation when they took that hit, most of it on the starboard side of the bridge. I know it’s none of my business, but … well, if I were you, I wouldn’t look inside. Remember her how she was last time you saw her. I mean …there was a lot of fragmentation.”

Sam had already seen Captain Rehnquist, still alive but missing his right leg below the knee, right arm at the shoulder, and his lower jaw, nose, right cheek, and eye. Rehnquist had already gone into a cold sleep capsule to wait until they could get him to a hospital and start reconstructive surgery. Sam looked away from the bags and shuddered, then nodded. He wanted to thank the medic but no words came, so he just patted him on the back.

The medtech went back to his patients and Sam floated to the gray composite bags, found the one with the tag reading “Washington, Lieutenant Julia K, Tactical Department” and closed his eyes.

“Hey, Jules,” he said very softly, “How did this happen? It doesn’t make sense. Little over a year ago I was back on Earth in civies, happy as a clam. Now here I am. Here you are.

“One year. That was a pretty quick change from weekend spaceman to head of a department, but I wasn’t worried. I had you backing me up. Now peoples’ lives depend on me making the right call, on my own, and I wonder how ready for all this I really am. Maybe everyone’s wondering that, huh?”

His embedded commlink vibrated. He opened the circuit and heard the voice of Senior Chief Petty Officer Constancia Navarro, the Chief of the Boat, COB for short.

Lieutenant Bitka, all department heads are to report to the executive officer’s cabin.

“On my way, COB,” he replied. Sam touched Jules’s bag one last time. “Goodbye, friend. God, I’ll miss you.” He pushed off toward the hatch, grateful for someone having ordered him to do something, anything.

*****

He paused in the main access trunk to let another damage control party hurry past going forward, where most of the damage had been suffered. The XO’s quarters were just aft of the wardroom and when Sam got there the stateroom already held three other officers besides Lieutenant Commander Huhn.

Sam had never been inside Huhn’s stateroom and as he glanced around he was struck by its sterile, institutional feel. Most of that was due to the smart walls being turned off, showing nothing but bare gray composite panels. What sorts of pictures or background did Huhn normally display on his walls? Or was this it? Maybe so.

He nodded to the others as he glided in the hatch and grabbed a padded handhold to anchor himself next to Lieutenant Moe Rice, the supply officer and the only other reservist in the room. Rice looked at Sam with eyes wider than normal and nodded a sad greeting. Jules had been his friend as well.

Lieutenants Marina Filipenko and Rose Hennessey floated side-by-side against the opposite wall. Most of the others had zero-gee drink bulbs, but Filipenko had a “bat-rat”, a battle ration in a self-heating bag. She took a bite, pausing first to sniff the bag’s dispenser valve. Sam had noticed that habit of hers before: she always sniffed each bite of food before eating it.

She was short and slender, but Sam knew from working out with her that her leg muscles were like steel springs–a legacy of growing up in the 1.1 gees of Bronstein’s World, the only Human extra-solar colony. Now she looked at him with that eyes-a-little-too-wide expression which always made him uncomfortable. Not that she singled him out–she looked at everyone that way, as if trying to see past their skin and into their souls, trying to solve the mystery of their existence with one good, long stare.

Hennessey, the chief engineer, was a regular officer, but her degree was from MIT instead of Annapolis, and her solid build, ruddy complexion, and buzz-cut reddish-blonde hair, contrasted with Filipenko’s slighter physique and paler palette.

Huhn was in his sleep cubby with the covers wrapped around him. He looked like a cocooned caterpillar to Sam. What kind of way was that to conduct a meeting? Sam looked quickly back at Moe Rice and raised his eyebrows slightly in question. Moe shrugged.

“I see Lieutenant Bitka has finally joined us,” Huhn said. “Good of you, considering there’s a goddamned war on.”

“Yes, sir, I heard the war announcement an hour ago. I came here as soon as I received word of the meeting.”

“Oh, no hurry,” he answered, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “At least no one higher up the chain of command seems to think there’s any hurry. Do you know when the uBakai turned over their declaration of war to our consulate on K’tok?”

He looked around at the faces of the other officers–glared at them, his rage barely contained.

“Seven damned hours ago! Some bureaucratic screw-up. We didn’t get the formal word until fifty seven minutes ago, although an hour before that we got the message loud and clear, didn’t we? That’s for damn sure! My God we’re in the shit.”

“What’d they go and start a fight for?” Moe Rice asked, looking from face to face in genuine bewilderment.

“Who knows why leatherheads do anything?” Huhn said.

“K’tok,” Filipenko said, eyes unfocused, as if she were talking to herself, her fork hesitating half way to her mouth. “That’s the brass ring everybody wants.”

“Let’s not argue over why,” Hennessey said. “They did it. That’s what counts. So what comes next?”

Huhn hunched his shoulders and pulled the covers tightly around him.

“I’m taking command of the boat, effective immediately. Captain is officially off the duty roster. Hell, he’s an icicle down in the med bay. The bad news is we took a lot of damage. Worse news is Hornet couldn’t get out of the way of the particle cloud and the really bad news is she was turned broadside trying to evade when she got hit.”

He paused and glanced at Sam for a moment and then looked away. Was that a veiled thanks for Sam getting them turned into the pellets or a veiled apology for freezing up himself?

“Our anti-collision nose armor stopped most of the stuff that hit us, but Hornet’s crippled and the squadron commander was killed. Hornet barely has internal power. Their A-gang is working to get emergency maneuvering and life support up, but even if they do, she’s out of commission for the foreseeable future. Her jump drive’s shot, too, so she’s not going home soon, which means we aren’t either.”

“Damn! What do we use as a back-up carrier?” Moe Rice asked.

Huhn’s mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. “I guess they’ll tell us when they figure it out themselves, okay? We’ve got our own problems to worry about, starting with holes in the personnel roster and … well, we’ve got to get organized. Re-organized, I guess. Filipenko, what’s Lieutenant Goldjune’s status?”

Filipenko looked up sharply as if her mind had been elsewhere. Her white shipsuit was stained–with grease, Sam had first thought, but now that he looked more closely he recognized the stains as dried blood. When they’d taken the hit she had been on the bridge in the communications chair, to the captain’s left, and that was probably his blood on her uniform. It was a miracle she hadn’t been killed or injured. She wrapped her arms across the front of her torso, hugging her shoulders, and shivered, then cleared her throat.

“The medtech tells me he will be alright. He was on the bridge, was wounded by fragments in the shoulder, and passed out from oxygen starvation when his suit failed, but they got to him quickly enough. I saw him and … the others.” She shuddered again. “He was lucky. The medtechs already have him bandaged and stabilized but they want to keep an eye on him for a few more hours.”

Sam understood her revulsion. His own brief glimpse of their mutilated captain would inhabit his nightmares for some time. Goldjune had been lucky his chair was on the port side of the bridge; no one on the starboard side–all of them people from Sam’s tactical department– had survived

“Thank God!” Huhn said, shaking his head. “We’d really be in the shit without Goldjune. I …” Huhn stopped and cleared his throat, then continued in a reedy voice. “I don’t know how I’d run the boat without him.”

Sam looked at Huhn and tried to match the figure in front of him with the officer who, a little more than two weeks earlier, had described himself as a “hard-charging warrior.”

Huhn shook himself once, the way a dog shakes off water, took two long deep breaths, and looked up.

“What shape’s the boat in, Hennessey?”

Rose Hennessey put a pair of viewer glasses on and gave them a short and to-the-point summary of the damage Puebla had suffered and how far her damage control teams had gotten in repairing the worst of it. They had atmospheric integrity and all fuel leaks had been patched. The thermal shroud was operational again at about 95% efficiency. That struck Sam as a hell of a lot accomplished in only two hours. Beyond that, the drives and life support were operational, although their high resolution visual spectrum–HRVS–optics were still down along with their active radar.

Hennessey pushed the viewer glasses back up on her head. “Problem is I only got eight EVA-qualified A-gangers, and they can only get so much done on the outside of the hull at one time. I’d like to get back to them as soon as possible.”

Huhn looked away and frowned. “You got snipes can turn a wrench. I need you here, figuring out what we do next. But I’ll keep it as short as I can. Rice, what’s the final casualty count?”

 


The Amber Arrow – Snippet 06

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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 06 Chapter Six: The Letter Ursel broke the wax seal and spread the scrolled letter onto her lap. She allowed Wannas to stand in the sunlight to cut down the glare on the parchment. “It … Continue reading

The Amber Arrow – Snippet 06

Chapter Six:

The Letter

Ursel broke the wax seal and spread the scrolled letter onto her lap. She allowed Wannas to stand in the sunlight to cut down the glare on the parchment.

“It is from Lady Ulla,” she said. “This is the handwriting of a castle scribe.”

“I told you,” Wannas replied.

“Please be quiet and let me read.”

The Skraeling started to move away.

“No, keep standing in the sunlight there,” Ursel said. “You cast a good shadow. And I can keep an eye on you that way.”

“I’ll stand here as long as it takes,” Wannas said with a snort. Ursel couldn’t tell if she’d offended him or amused him. She turned her attention to the letter.

My dearest Earl Keiler,

I hope you have identified the respected holder of this letter and have not accidently dispatched him and his men with sword, arrow, or hangman’s noose. You bear people can be famously grumpy at times. If identification is needed and has not been provided, then see the accompanying formal letter of introduction and diplomatic passage through the mark. Also enclosed in a separate packet is personal correspondence from myself to Ursel Keiler. I would request that she receive this at your earliest convenience.

The Skraeling man before you, Wannas Kittamaquand, arrived in Raukenrose with an alarming report. He is an emissary from the Republic of Potomak. That city-state is now under siege by Sandhaven’s professional military. They have been reinforced, I am sorry to say, with Imperial Roman troops.

Roman troops on Kalte soil, my dear earl!

This has been a reason to go to war many times in the past. It is even worse when the military of an important Kalte kingdom is teamed up with Rome and attacking one of the Skraeling republics, our long-time allies and trading partners.

Potomak sits at the Great Falls of the river. All portage up and down river must pass through the city. For over two centuries, she has guaranteed the mark’s route to the sea. She has guarded all trade coming in and out of the Shenandoah Valley.

I am told that this Wannas Kittamaquand, while not of noble birth–his republic has forbidden royal titles–belongs to a clan and family of high importance in Potomak. His father is a senator in the Potomak Assembly. His uncle holds the executive position of chief of war for the republic.

You may have heard of the Kittamaquand clan in passing. His family owns and operates Kitty Yards, the largest Potomak tobacco market.

In order to get to the mark, Wannas and his men had to break through the siege. It was a dangerous undertaking. Many were killed and great sacrifice was made while carving a way through the Sandhaven encirclement. According to the young man, they fought Roman Imperials as well as Sandhaveners. I grilled two of his men separately, and their stories agree. Both also say that Wannas showed great bravery during the breakout.

I am inclined to believe that the situation is as Wannas reports it. The city is cut off. People inside are down to their last food sources.

They are eating horses, my dear earl, horses!

Knowing the respect in which the Skraeling hold their horses, the people of Potomak must be in a terrible condition, indeed.

Wannas very forcefully requested military aid from the mark. I came to see that his agitation, while sharply expressed, is justified.

I am going to send a limited levee of our people to Potomak to attempt a diversionary tactic, around five hundred men. I’ll do this so that new supplies might be brought into the city. The alternative is to let the people of Potomak starve. Our centuries-old route to the sea will be cut off.

But I will not send a full force to ally with the Skraelings until I speak with my brother.

I don’t need to tell you that most of our trade with the northern sister kingdoms goes out through the Chesapeake Bay. Overland shipment adds one hundred times the transportation cost to our goods. It raises the price of all trade goods coming into the mark, also.

You are no bean-counting scribe, my dear Earl, so if you can’t make heads or tails of this, just ask your lovely adopted daughter. Mistress Ursel is quite gifted with numbers. She can put it into a hunter and warrior’s terms, as you well know.

My brother Wulf is not in Raukenrose. He is traveling to the Mist Mountains and to Eounnbard, where the elves dwell. We have had no message from him. I can only assume he has been forging on in that direction for the past weeks.

And since he is not here, I cannot seek his advice. I cannot ask his permission to send a full levee of troops to Potomak.

We need Wulf’s approval.

Wulf is the only von Dunstig who can hear the land-dragon call. The duke, my father, continues to suffer from the morosis disease, and his reason is fading. Even before the death of our older brothers Otto and Adelbert, Wulf had begun hearing the dragon call.

The gift is said to be passed down to male heirs. I don’t know about that, but I can tell you that I myself have not the slightest ability to hear the call. Nor, as far as I can tell, does our ten-year-old sister, Anya.

Wulf is the heir to the dragon-call, and so the heir to the Mark of Shenandoah.

He refuses to take on the title of Duke Regent. Instead, he has appointed me Duchess Regent.

I can promise you that I do not want this honor. With him out gallivanting to Eounnbard, I saw little choice but to take it.

For more than a month before Wulf headed south, the dragon-call was strongly on him. Since the Olden Oak, his usual vision-site, was cut down by the Sandhaveners during the invasion, it was obvious that he should return to the spot he’d last communed with the Dragon of Shenandoah. You know the place well. It is Raven Rock, on the northern edge of Shwartzwald County.

Wulf resisted.

He was busy preparing for an expedition to Amberstone Valley. He planned to take our foster-sister Saeunn back to her homeland. Yes, you read correctly. That’s a trip of nearly six hundred leagues.

This didn’t matter to Wulf.

After her confrontation with the Draugar Wuten, Saeunn was left wounded. During the summer, she became deathly ill. As you know, elves do not get sick often. There are very few diseases which can kill an elf. They are born immortal after all, with a strong constitution meant to last them for centuries.

But Saeunn died in that battle, then got brought back to life. She wears a star-stone–an artifact that seemed to revive her after the final fight with Draugar Wuten.

Wulf is convinced that the star-stone is failing.

He thinks Saeunn will die if he can’t get her to help. So his plan was to take the Elf Road west with her.

That didn’t work out.

Wannas is not the only strange visitor we have had to Raukenrose lately.

About a week before Wulf’s planned departure, an elf warrior stumbled into the mark. He’d been on what sounded like an impossibly hard journey from Amberstone Valley–which was where Wulf was planning to go.

The elf’s name is Abendar Anderolan. Abendar reported that the Wild Kingdoms between the mark and the Great Mississippi River were in an uproar, and that the Elf Road to Amberstone Valley was closed.

He claimed to have set out in a traveling caravan of over one hundred elves, complete with wagons full of trade goods from his valley. Only five elves survived. Once they reached relative safety, they decided to separate to warn the Kaltelands that taking the Elf Road is a march of death at the moment.

Abendar convinced Wulf that only a full battalion of warriors might punch its way through. Wulf almost ordered up the general levee to raise such a force.

At that point, our friend and Wulf’s advisor at the university, Master Albrec Tolas, stepped in. He convinced Wulf this was a terrible idea. It was. It would have left the mark defenseless. Even Wulf, in his desperation to help Saeunn, could not justify doing that.

I don’t really need to explain why Wulf is so determined to help Saeunn Amberstone, do I? They haven’t agreed to a marriage–I don’t think that will ever happen, given the nature of men and elves. But they’ve made no secret of the fact that their friendship has grown into something more for both of them.

They are a couple. In love.

At this point, Ursel’s hands began to shake as she held the scroll.

To hear it so plainly stated . . .

A couple. In love.

She knew she must be flushing, and she blinked water from her eyes. She didn’t look up at Wannas. She didn’t want to have to explain what was affecting her so much.

Then Ursel got a hold on herself and continued reading.

Now there is turmoil to the west. There is grave danger in the east if Potomak falls. And the divine ones only know what is happening in Vall l’Obac. We’ve had no word from the south in over a year. Our rangers report that trade at the border towns has slowed to a trickle.

This is worrisome to me because of our other castle fosterling, Princess Ravenelle Archambeault–yes, the one-year-old child you took as a hostage after the Little War. Princess Ravenelle is now seventeen and, per the agreement with Queen Valentine, is free to return to her native country. As you and my father may have foreseen when you made the fostering arrangement, my family has grown to love Ravenelle–I think Wulf may feel closer to her as a sister than he does to me, to tell the truth.

This is not a surprise, since they are the same age. They grew up as something like outcasts among the castle children. Wulf as third son, and Ravenelle the living symbol of what we’ve been taught to believe are Roman vampires, down to drinking the blood of her servants to gain control of their minds.

Ravenelle has always been a devoted practitioner of the Talaia faith. Her freedom to do this was also part of your arrangement with her mother.

The mark has never been so threatened in a thousand years, and all our young heir can think of is saving his girlfriend, even with the dragon-call knocking at his mind.

Something had to be done, and Abendar stepped forward with an alternate plan. He was headed to the south himself to find refuge among his relatives, the Mist Elves of Eounn Anderolan, the Mountains of Mist. He considers them as something like poor relatives to his own folk, the Smoke Elves of Amberstone Valley. But their king is extremely old. It is possible he knows some way a starless elf might be saved.

It was a long shot, but it was a chance for Wulf to do something about Saeunn.

Please understand, I love Lady Saeunn as a sister. I would gladly have gone with Saeunn to anywhere we might find hope.

I offered. But my brother wouldn’t have it.

I must confide that I am afraid that he may be running from his responsibilities as heir and regent as much as toward help for our foster-sister, Saeunn.

Again, this is not a secret opinion. Half of Raukenrose thinks the same thing. In fact, mobs who claim to be either pro– or anti–Wulf von Dunstig have taken to the streets in our beloved capital. They are practically at each other’s throats. Sometimes it seems all I can do is to keep the peace, much less prepare for war.

But I do prepare.

War is coming. And despite what my brother may think, it doesn’t give a fig about love.

 


Chain of Command – Snippet 06

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Chain of Command – Snippet 06 “Cha-cha has gone active with a drone!” Delacroix reported from the Tactical Three seat beside him, and Sam saw it on his own screen as well. USS Oaxaca, the command vessel for their four-boat … Continue reading

Chain of Command – Snippet 06

Cha-cha has gone active with a drone!” Delacroix reported from the Tactical Three seat beside him, and Sam saw it on his own screen as well. USS Oaxaca, the command vessel for their four-boat destroyer division, nicknamed Cha-cha, had just launched a sensor drone and turned on its active radar.

“Multiple radar echoes,” Delacroix continued, “small projectiles incoming, bearing zero degrees relative. Range nine thousand kilometers and closing fast. Very fast.”

The projectiles were coming on the exact opposite heading. All the captain’s burn had accomplished was to add about two hundred meters per second to their collision velocity. Sam checked the calculated closing rate: 97,000 kilometers per hour. Jesus Christ, that was twenty-seven kilometers a second! They’d better get out of the way quick. He set a course intersect timer.

“Three hundred thirty seconds to impact,” he said.

Ensign Lee at Maneuvering One began working the current and projected courses. “Best evasion track is ninety degrees relative and flat. Permission to align the boat for burn.”

“Negative! It’s the captain’s call,” Huhn answered.

Ensign Lee, the only reservist line officer other than Sam, turned and looked at Huhn and then at Sam, her eyes questioning. Her face was round and fine-featured, chin recessed, mouth small, eyes always open wide, and her nose was incongruously large and wedge-shaped, which gave her the look of a slightly startled bird, even more so just then. She was right, though.  Sam was sitting TAC One. It was his job to speak up.

“Sir, you’re in command until we’ve got comms to the bridge. We need to get the hell out of that cloud’s way.”

“Kramer, get me the division commander,” Huhn said. That would be Captain Bonaventure aboard USS Oaxaca.

“Incoming text from Cha-Cha now, sir,” Kramer answered from the Comm Station “Message reads: All red stingers, evade. Seventy-eight degrees relative, angle on the bow ninety, forty-second MPD full burn. Expedite. Signed Red Stinger Six Actual. End message.”

“Aligning the boat,” Ensign Lee said immediately, punching the acceleration warning klaxon. Huhn visibly started in his command station as it sounded. Sam saw him open his mouth to speak but then hesitate and close it again. For just a moment Sam was sure he had been about to order Lee to belay the alignment. Then Sam felt the side-ways acceleration as Lee turned the boat’s orientation with the attitude control thrusters. After a dozen or more seconds he felt the acceleration switch direction, begin slowing them to the new orientation. Sam played with the range adjustment and resolution on his tactical display just to keep his hands busy, waiting for the boat to finally settle on its new track, feeling the precious seconds bleed away.

“Boat aligned,” Lee finally announced. “Full burn.”

Again Sam noticed she didn’t ask for permission. He felt himself pushed back into his acceleration rig from the first thruster pair, then rapidly climbing to a half gee once all six thrusters kicked in, roaring out 8,500 tons of thrust for forty seconds.

“Two hundred five seconds to impact,” Sam said when the thrusters fell silent and they were weightless again. A plot of the course change due to the burn showed they’d have displaced forty kilometers laterally from their former position by the time the cloud got to them. Forty kilometers wasn’t much in deep space, where they usually measured distance in light seconds, each of which was about three hundred thousand kilometers.

If the intel briefing had been right, the pellets in the cloud were small, maybe not much bigger than sand, and the search radar couldn’t track individual particles that size, just the collective reflection of a whole bunch of them. That made it hard to tell how wide the cloud was and exactly how far they were from its leading edge. The shipboard tactical system had made some assumptions about likely dispersion and had predicted they’d avoid the likely danger zone, but assumptions weren’t facts.

How had a cloud that small, relatively speaking–actually three of them in succession–happened to hit them in all this big black vacuum, and on an exact reciprocal course? Whoever lived through this had better give that some hard thought.

“One hundred sixty seconds to impact.”

They sat in silence, feeling the burden of time’s glacial passage, waiting to empirically discover their fates. As they did so, Chief Petty Officer Abhay Patel glided through the hatch and wordlessly strapped into the Tactical Two chair. Sam nodded to him.

Maybe they should have burned longer, but for Puebla that would have meant emptying their energy storage system. They’d have had to use the direct fusion thruster to get back on course. Everyone in the star system would see that. Maybe everyone already knew where they were. Maybe they all should have just used the direct fusion thrusters and poured on two gees of acceleration for the full two minutes they had until impact. Maybe.

One thing occurred to Sam: if the pellet cloud hit them now, it would hit them broadside, and that would do a lot more damage. Huhn didn’t look as if he was thinking things through very well, and it was Sam’s job as Tac One to remind him.

“Commander Huhn, I recommend we re-orient the boat nose-on to the angle of attack. The forward micro-meteor shield will give us some protection.”

Huhn jerked a bit in his acceleration rig and looked at Sam, eyes wide.

“Sir, shall I order Ensign Lee to reorient the boat?” Sam asked.

Huhn stared at him blankly. His eyes blinked.

“Yes, sir,” Sam said. “Ensign Lee, reorient the boat to our previous heading.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” she said and sounded the boat-wide acceleration klaxon.

“One hundred to impact,” Sam said as he felt the Puebla begin to turn.

Why wasn’t Jules or anyone else on the bridge answering their commlinks?

She and Sam had hit it off almost as soon as he came on board. They were officers and both understood their responsibilities–she probably better than he–so they hadn’t crossed any lines, hadn’t broken any rules. Maybe they should have.

The radar image of the pellet cloud disappeared when it crossed the 1700 kilometer range band and snuffed out ChaCha’s drone and its active radar.  Sam’s screen went back to displaying just the passive thermal images of the nearby friendlies.

“Sixty seconds to impact.”

It was funny. His taste in women usually tended toward the buxom, but Jules was thin, wiry even. But people aren’t just types, are they? You think you know what you want, where your life is going, and then someone comes out of nowhere and just surprises the hell out of you. She had this amazing smile.

“Twenty seconds to impact.”

“Damage control party has reached the bridge,” Karlstein reported, her voice strained. “Multiple casualties.”

Sam breathed in slowly.

“Impact in five, four, three …”